Spoiled by oil

In Nigeria, the poor struggle in ghettos, and millionaires become billionaires

AFP_14Z2U4 Life by water: A waterfront slum in Lagos, Nigeria | Getty Images

A country’s festivals are captivating attractions. But, in Nigeria, you can become a captive… or a corpse at one.

The travel advisory issued by the UK government cautions you to shun such occasions due to the “heightened risk of terrorist attacks”. Guerrillas roam this country’s northeast with improvised explosives, anti-aircraft guns and rocket-propelled grenades. To paint a broader picture, there is banditry in the northwest, escalating fatal clashes between farmers and herders in the central areas, gangsters battling to control resources in the south, pirates operating off the southern coast, secessionism in the southeast, pollution, protests, scams and violent street crime in the cities (assassinations, muggings, armed robberies and car-jackings) and “high threat” of kidnap by criminals and terrorists for ransom throughout the country. Diplomats, aid workers, businessmen and journalists are legitimate captives. Some were killed.

President Muhammadu Buhari visited Washington seeking help to retrieve Nigerian loot stashed in foreign banks. The amount: $150 billion!
Gangsters kidnap, imprison, rape and repeatedly impregnate young women to produce babies in well-guarded, dilapidated houses [“baby farms”].

There were three outbreaks of cholera this year; the threat of Zika virus transmission continues, warns the advisory. Also common are malaria, typhoid and lassa—whatever that is! Okay, Wikipedia says it’s a viral haemorrhagic fever causing mouth and stomach bleeding.

As gangsters and terrorists target them, the travel advisory suggests you avoid crowded areas like “places of worship, markets, shopping malls, football stadium, transport hubs, educational institutions, government buildings, international institutions, hotels, bars and restaurants”. So if you are not robbed, murdered or dangerously ill, what is left to visit?

Who in their right minds would travel to Nigeria, one of Africa’s “shithole” countries as provocatively labelled by President Donald Trump?

Nearly two million people do every year. I am one of them, and an old belief is reaffirmed: situations look more dangerous from outside than from within.

Every bit of the travel advisory is true. But the opposite is equally true—like in India. In Nigeria, I also experienced the beauty and sheer vitality of Life—the voraciousness of contrasts, the vibrancy of culture, vividness of colour, vivaciousness of its people, verve of street fashion, vigour of critical media and the valour of human spirit that conquers the pathos of human existence. Says singer Nneka, “If you can survive in Nigeria, you can survive anywhere.”

Muslim politicians from the north take turns with their Christian brethren in the south to run this rich and diverse land of 250 tribes. In a live and let live urban spirit, Muslim elders ignore—but do not chastise—young girls, giggling and swiggling in stilettoes and well-stitched, tight dresses. Tall tribal statesmen in magnificent caftans glide with their retinue, while colourfully-attired women wear wigs—not to hide hair loss but as fashion statements. Christian pastors, with dazzling smiles, promise miracles from large billboards; gigolos advertise their mobile numbers in large letters on compound walls. Sin gambols with piety, superstition with irreverence.

Business and family reunions by expatriate Nigerians lure visitors to Africa’s largest economy. I am in the capital, Abuja, to attend the International Press Institute’s high-profile conference on “Why good journalism matters”. For weeks, the federal government showcased the conference as a symbol of press freedom. But my “business” visa approval “warned not to practice journalism” without the information ministry’s accreditation.

The warning was a ticket for time travel. Decades slipped past and I was back covering the killing fields in another country’s northeast—Sri Lanka—beautiful, diverse, tropical; with human tigers roaming with IEDs, anti-aircraft guns and rocket propelled grenades.

Dying delta: Members of the Joint Task Force at a destroyed illegal oil refinery in the Niger Delta | Getty Images Dying delta: Members of the Joint Task Force at a destroyed illegal oil refinery in the Niger Delta | Getty Images

Thanks to IPI’s arrangements, on arrival I don’t encounter “bogus greeters” who welcome you and then rob you. But, true to the advisory, while I am there, there are terror attacks on religious festivities, kidnappings and spiralling farmer-herder clashes that leave 100 dead. Born in Nigeria to English parents, actor Hugo Weaving says “It’s a hideous country to go to, in reality.”

But it is also “beautiful”, as the flip-flopping Trump remarked when challenged on his offensive description. Nollywood is the world’s third biggest film industry, after Hollywood and Bollywood. Contemporary Nigerian literature spans a rich spectrum, from feisty Wole Soyinka, 84, Africa’s first Nobel Literature prize winner, to fantastical Ben Okri, 59, to feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, 40. Visitors are enthralled by haunting folk songs, throbbing music and mesmerising dances—one involves belly muscles mimicking ocean tides. Abundant natural resources, thriving entrepreneurial bravura, the construction of a privately-owned $12 billion oil refinery on a swamp, the ceaseless thrum of jugaad and innovation, the hustle of cities and the bustle of village markets emblazon the drive, virtues and potential of a proud nation. But they also inscribe the dangers, vices and perils of a covetous state.

Corruption is severe. Nigeria ranks 148 in Transparency International’s list of 180 countries; New Zealand tops the list. It is an example of natural resources being a curse, a fountainhead of corruption degrading morality and environment. Soyinka despairs: “Nigeria would have been a more highly developed country without the oil. I wish we had never smelled the fumes of petroleum.”

Shell Nigeria discovered oil in 1956, and today the country is the world’s fifth largest producer of crude—two million barrels a day. Power corrupts, oil power can corrupt absolutely. Past military dictators and the ruling elite have systematically embezzled oil profits. Says Zainab Ahmed, national planning minister and head of the Nigeria Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, “The fight against corruption is the single most important thing we have to do.”

President Muhammadu Buhari—who won the 2015 elections promising to end corruption—visited Washington to seek help to retrieve Nigerian loot stashed in foreign banks. The amount: $150 billion!

Despite raids, an illegal $6 billion-a-year “blood-oil industry” thrives with organised crime involved in sabotage, theft and illegal crude-refining. Parts of the verdant Niger Delta look apocalyptic—barren, blistered and blackened by foul-smelling, evil-looking, firewood-fuelled makeshift oil refineries run by gangsters employing slave labour.

Nigerian investigative journalists have catalogued how corruption, regulatory failures, poverty and premature death stalk the oil producing areas: no drinking water, fish dying in oil-contaminated rivers, and toxic exposure to gas flaring and tanker explosions. Says Lawal Musa Daura, who heads the government’s anti-corruption battle, “Corruption denies people education, health care, electricity, and the basic necessities of life. It is about pot-holed roads, dry taps and unlit bulbs.” As the local Guardian newspaper editorialised “Corruption bastardises governance”.

Urban areas are fringed with slums—crumbling mud huts with rusty corrugated roofs, smelly gutters, mounds of garbage and slushy dirt tracks, bereft of water, toilets and electricity. Says Gishiri slum-dweller Abdul Usman, “We sit in darkness while rich people are chauffered in big cars on wide roads with bright streetlights.” Public transport is “dangerous”, taxis and long distance buses are often, to quote the advisory, “poorly maintained, uninsured and driven by unqualified drivers”.

While the poor struggle in squalid ghettos, millionaires become billionaires bagging lucrative deals through political connections. They spend lavishly on sentried, magnificent mansions in Abuja or Lagos, fenced by high walls topped with electrified barbed wire. They buy yachts, private jets and the choicest real estate in the west. Like oil-rich, bankrupt Venezuela, Nigeria imports trivia like toothpicks. Electricity shortage is crippling, but the affluent live in a stratosphere powered by imported diesel in imported generator sets.

Nigeria generates only 3,600MW of electricity for its 200 million people; Norway 36,000MW for its 5 million! Transparent and accountable governance has made Norway’s 1969 oil discovery a blessing, leading to inclusive growth, the world’s best quality of life, high per capita income and $1 trillion in the world’s largest sovereign wealth fund to secure current and future generations.

Like gushing oil, scams stream from Nigerian swindlers: cyber frauds, credit-card cloning, emails promising to transfer unclaimed millions on receiving bank details. “Baby scams” are notorious. Conmen exploit by bridging the “calamity” of childlessness with the stigmatisation of unwed, pregnant women in a country where abortion is illegal. Fake clinics and sham orphanages trade in babies—$4000 for a girl, $5000 for a boy. Gangsters steal babies or bribe their impoverished mothers.

There is an also an organised racket in “miracle babies”. In parts of Nigeria, childless women face ridicule, contempt and prejudice. They are viewed as bad omens, sometimes, even accused of witchcraft. For some, adoption is not an option because it publicises the “curse of barrenness”. So they go to extreme lengths to “achieve” pregnancy. Meeting this desperate demand is an industry of quack doctors and spurious fertility clinics that offer “miracle babies”.

In maternity clinics with names like “God’s Gift Clinic”, women are injected with hormones and given voodoo concoctions to make their bellies swell. After nine months, the miracle doctors call them to select clinics where they perform fake caesarean operations and present them with a new born. Unknown to the parents, the baby is not naturally theirs, but “products” of “baby farms”.

Gangsters kidnap, imprison, rape and repeatedly impregnate young women to produce babies in well-guarded, dilapidated houses. World Health Organizations’s Alexander Dodoo says, “The numbers of baby farms have reached epidemic levels.” One TV sting operation showed a fake doctor with his fleet of luxury cars in cruel contrast to the wretched conditions of the living baby factories—captive, pregnant girls aged between 14 and 19. Despite raids, it’s difficult to eradicate this scourge.

Exploitation, destitution, injustice—these are ideal conditions for terrorism. Says Hamza Idris, Politics Editor of Daily Trust, “Boko Haram cashed in on the poverty in the northeast and the failure of governments to live up to their responsibility of providing basic necessities to their people.” A powerful orator, Mohammed Yusuf, who formed Boko Haram in 2002 to “purify” Islam, won local loyalty by providing safety, marriage, mosques and livelihood to the youth—from taxis to farmland.

Preachers of Boko Haram (which means “non-Islamic education is forbidden”) misinterpret the Arabic Quran into local African dialects to proclaim that education and democracy are sins. After Yusuf was killed in 2009, his group split; one faction is now affiliated to the IS. In cooperation with western countries, Nigerian armed forces have eroded Boko Haram’s capability to invade major towns. But they remain active in their strongholds. The lure of overthrowing oppressors, achieving justice in this life and paradise in the after-life fuel the flow of jihadi suicide bombers.

If economic growth fails to match its population explosion, a demographic bomb awaits Nigeria. Millions of youngsters are already jobless. Their doomed choices are terrorism, crime and illegal migration to Europe. Human trafficking is one of the fastest growing areas of organised crime. Says NGO activist Charity Ohadugha, “Migration, miracle pastors and desperate devotees are all signs of unemployment.”

On my plane ride back home, a heavily pregnant Nigerian lady sits beside me. I wonder, is hers a “miracle baby”? It turns out it is her third and she is heading to Texas to deliver, as she did her first two. Being born in the USA entitles them to the coveted American citizenship. No longer willing to be captives of misgovernance, affluent Nigerians prefer “miracle birthplaces” to secure their children’s future.